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FINANCE CHARGES

The state's Clean Elections program, narrowly approved by voters in 2000, has gotten mighty messy in recent weeks.

In the most high-profile story to hit the wires, the Citizens Clean Elections Commission is facing a major test: Can members order an elected official to forfeit office? They've told state Rep. David Burnell Smith he's gotta go, because he overspent on his GOP primary campaign last year. Smith, who worked with right-wing political weasel Constantin Querard (who's had his share of legal troubles in the last year), has vowed to fight for his right to stay in office. Stay tuned for an entertaining legal battle, which might last long enough for Smith to get re-elected. Wonder if he'll ask for Clean Elections funds again next year?

In other news: Last week, we learned who the biggest winner in Clean Elections history is: Matt Shaffer, a former Clean Elections deputy director who hit the legal jackpot when a federal jury awarded him $1.1 million in damages following his dismissal from the organization. All that money, and he didn't even have to collect a bunch of $5 contributions to qualify--or go through the hassle of running for office.

According to The Associated Press, jury members concluded that the commission's former executive director, Colleen Connor, defamed Shaffer when she fired him over a spat regarding the campaign-finance reports of GOP gubernatorial candidate Matt Salmon back in 2002. The jury said the termination was OK, but Connor's later comments in a letter to the Department of Public Safety damaged his reputation.

Connor, who stepped down from running the Clean Elections Commission earlier this year, was also a key player in the prosecution of Yuri Downing, who ran for the Legislature from a Scottsdale district on the Libertarian ticket in 2002. Clean Elections officials alleged that Yuri, along with two pals, spent more than $100,000 in Clean Elections money partying instead of campaigning. Although the other two candidates agreed to repay the money, Yuri initially vowed to take the case to court, saying his campaign expenses were legitimate. Frankly, we think he probably had a decent case--who's to say what a legitimate campaign expenditure is?

Late last year, Yuri folded his hand and copped a perjury plea that was likely to include jail time. But as his sentencing approached, Yuri vanished and remains a fugitive at large. Last week, Rep. Ted Downing, Yuri's dad, had to forfeit an $18,000 bond that allowed Yuri out of jail pending sentencing.

"I love my son," says Downing, who represents midtown Tucson. "I'd like to see him, and I can't do that."

In other Clean Elections news: Republican David Gowan, who came in third in a four-way GOP primary for two District 30 House of Representatives seats last year, was socked last month with a $10,000 fine by the Clean Elections Commission.

Gene Lemon, a former commission staffer who investigated Gowan's spending in the primary, concluded that the GOP candidate delivered more than $26,000--or roughly 70 percent of his campaign spending--to his political consultant, the aforementioned Constantin Querard. (Why is it that clients of that guy keep ending up in legal trouble?)

Most of that money seemed to be aimed at attacking incumbent Rep. Marian McClure for being too lib, including a mailer that seemed remarkably similar to hit pieces dropped on several Maricopa County moderate Republicans by other Querard clients.

McClure got her revenge by filing the complaints against Gowan that ultimately led to the audit, which resulted in the $10G fine.


WILDLIFE WORRIES

Anxious wildlife lovers are tuned into Congress this week, where a troubling creature called the California Mouth-breather is running amok. Congressman Richard Pombo represents an agricultural area of his coastal state, chairs the House Committee on Resources and is expected to introduce a bill that would gut the Endangered Species Act. Pombo's philosophy seems simple: A critter ain't endangered if it's already dead.

Pombo's proposal stinks. It would remove many protections for America's most vulnerable animals, to be replaced with soft-touch approaches favored by the mining and lumber industries, many farmers, plenty of ranchers and at least one former Arizona Game and Fish commissioner.

Pombo's bill profoundly shrinks the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's timeframe for responding to landowners about whether certain property uses might harm an endangered species. If the agency was unable to provide a researched opinion within 180 days, landowners could then do what they pleased, regardless of the effects. Pombo's bill would also force taxpayers to compensate land owners who whine that an endangered animal restricts development and harms their property values.

Supporters of this stupidity argue that the ESA has only helped 17 species fully recover and be de-listed since it was introduced in 1973. But that's deceptive bull; according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the law has successfully stabilized or increased populations for 41 percent of listed species.

If Pombo's bill hits the stage, Southern Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva is a certain and outspoken vote against the proposal. But Congressman Jim Kolbe is playing cutesy on this critical issue. While the measure has percolated for months, Kolbe has issued only wishy-washy, noncommittal statements about the ESA. Perhaps he's just playing to conservative ranching constituents as his own re-election nears. Either way, Rep. Kolbe should fish or cut bait.

Speaking of gutting the Endangered Species Act: A few months back, TW told you about how the Real ID act, which was designed to prevent illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses, included a bit of buried legislation that allowed the Department of Homeland Security to ignore the ESA, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act, in border-control efforts ("Improper Proposal," May 5).

Well, now the Real ID Act has become law, and Bush administration officials are using it to sidestep environmental concerns as they finish building a wall between California and Mexico, according to an Associated Press report last week.

To finish the fence, the Border Patrol will have to dump 2.1 million cubic yards of dirt into a half-mile-long canyon. Environmentalists say that's going to cause problems for an estuary that's home to threatened and endangered birds.


BILLBOARD BATTLE, PART 374

Pima County officials are close to concluding hush-hush negotiations with the gang over at Clear Channel Outdoor over billboards that violate county code.

Chris Straub of the Pima County Attorney's Office says the county will release the settlement proposal sometime this week, provided they're able to come to terms with Clear Channel.

Straub promises that the county's Billboard Review Committee will have at least two weeks to review the agreement before the Board of Supervisors is asked to approve it.

Mark Mayer, a member of the county's Billboard Review Committee who has done everything short of firing up a chainsaw to bring down the outdoor advertising, complains that the county should have abandoned negotiations long ago and just taken Clear Channel to court.


CANDIDATES ON DISPLAY

Hey, did you know there's a City Council election coming up in November? Yes, Democrat Nina Trasoff is trying to unseat Republican incumbent Fred Ronstadt, while Democrat Karin Uhlich is trying to knock out Republican incumbent Kathleen Dunbar.

Watch the candidates tussle at a forum hosted by the Pima Association of Taxpayers from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 3, at the Wilmot Library, 530 N. Wilmot Road. For more skinny on the event, call 887-0112.

Sick of hearing about blogs yet? Here's one to check out for sly Libertarian commentary on local politics: www.tucsonsammy.com.

More by Jim Nintzel

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